2012 Japanese Superbike Shootout - Video

New upgrades shuffle the rankings and bring up the question: To TC or not TC?

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On the Track

The natural home for any sportbike is the racetrack, and though the Streets of Willow track isn’t an ideal setting for these fire-breathing literbikes, it still proves practical for evaluation purposes. What we found in many ways mirrors our street impressions.

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Yamaha YZF-R1

It feels cruel ranking the R1 in fourth place, as in many ways it is truly a cool motorcycle. But the aspects we like about it are narrowly focused and don’t do much to get us around the track any quicker than its rivals.

2012 Yamaha YZF-R1

Mirroring our street impressions, we love the engine character the crossplane crankshaft delivers, but only when the tach needle is pointed northward. “The crossplane crank sounds sensational and smoothes out at higher revs,” Duke says. Which leads to one of its faults: the R1 engine has gutless bottom-end power, requiring deft shifting to keep it happy. If not, it shudders and vibrates with laggardly forward progress. “Where the other bikes could manage second gear through some slower corners, the Yamaha demanded it be shifted into first to get any reasonable acceleration out of the corner,” notes Tom.

Further, the sensitive throttle we observed on the street seemed even more hypersensitive on the track, even in its standard power mode. “When I was looking for just a little bit of extra throttle, what I got was way more than what I needed at the time,” Pete wrote. “This in turn led to sloppy riding in some corners.”

Pete also echoed our sentiments regarding the R1’s wooden brake feel at the lever, describing it as “a little too numb in the initial application.”

2012 Yamaha YZF-R1

On the street, our biggest issue with the R1 is its grabby clutch actuation with a friction zone near the end of the lever’s travel, but this only makes itself apparent at the track when leaving the pits. Otherwise, shifts are smooth and the slipper clutch is great at masking sloppy downshifts.

Yamaha’s traction control earned high marks at the track for its seamless operation and the added value it brings considering how tightly priced the four machines are. “Its wonderful TC gives peace of mind,” says Kevin of the eight-level system. And despite being the only one of the four without Showa’s Big Piston Fork, the R1 keeps its composure well on the track.

2012 Japanese Superbike Shootout Track

In the end, the R1’s downfalls weren’t enough to overcome its exciting engine and excellent traction control. We’re convinced a simple dyno tune to get back some midrange, and a tweak to the brakes would be able to significantly alter its ranking. Because, “despite its quirks, it’s still a super-fun and capable literbike,” says Duke.

Honda CBR1000RR

Four things stood out when discussing the Honda. Every tester admired the compact feeling of the ergos, with things like “smallest-feeling bike of the four” and “600-like” written in our notepads. With that compact feel comes a nimble chassis, a benefit on the tight Streets of Willow track.

Another benefit at Streets was the strong midrange, allowing for great squirt out of corners. “On a short, rapid-fire turn track like SoW, the CBR’s strong, snarling low and mid-range power is one of the bike’s strongest assets,” Pete writes.

2012 Honda CBR1000RR

The switch to a Big Piston Fork and Showa’s new Balance-Free rear shock is another step ahead for Honda. Tom found it “exhibits awesome front-end feedback,” which translates into confidence, and confidence equals speed.

2012 Honda CBR1000RRSometimes instead of speed, confidence equals wheelspin, as Duke discovered. After reeling off some quick laps on the CBR and feeling good about himself and the secure grip from the Pirelli Diablo Corsas, he got himself into a big slide while dialing on the throttle exiting Turn 2. “The darkie it left on the pavement might have looked impressive, but it made me question the lack of TC in a 2012 sportbike,” he scribbled in his notes after a change of underwear.

It’s this lack of electronic rider aid that ultimately earns the Honda demerit points. The safety net of traction control goes a long way in easing a track rider’s fears, and the Honda’s lack of a system – and approximately equal price tag – has us questioning its value equation. “On more than one occasion I found the back-end spinning up, and all I kept thinking was, ‘This wouldn’t be an issue with some good, Honda-designed TC,’” Pete adds.

When it comes to performance, however, the CBR1000RR is still solid. Its stable and confident chassis works well paired with the engine’s healthy midrange. Braking power is strong, though slightly behind that on the Kawasaki and Suzuki. And if you’re the type who doesn’t care about TC, this might be the steed for you. Kevin even went so far as to say “If money were on the line, I bet I could go quickest around the Streets course on the CBR.”

2012 Honda CBR1000RR

Suzuki GSX-R1000

Mechanically speaking, we can’t find much to dislike about the GSX-R1000. “The Suzuki is simply an easy bike to ride fast,” Tom notes. It’s true. From the moment we hopped on, the new Gixxer impressed each of us with its abundance of power, stable and agile handling, powerful yet communicative Brembo brakes and above all, its familiar feel. “I’ve always loved these qualities about the GSX-R of recent years, and the new model doesn’t lose any of that magic,” Pete says.

If we sound like a broken record, that’s because we continue to be amazed at the difference a few tweaks have made to the GSX-R compared to last year’s model, especially when stacked against the all-conquering ZX-10R. When discussing power, “its torquey nature reminds me of the Honda,” notes Kevin. “And, despite its taller gearing, it pulls up top in a way the Honda and Yamaha just can’t match.”

2012 Suzuki GSX-R1000

But there is one chink in the otherwise flawless Gixxer armor: traction control, or rather the lack of it. With close to 160 horses to the ground and switchable power maps, it seems odd for Suzuki to purposefully carry on with an updated GSX-R without this safety feature. “A bike delivering as much power to the wheel as the Suzuki does can only benefit from a well-designed, refined traction control system,” Pete writes.

As much as we love the Suzuki, we again have to consider overall value, and not having TC in a field this tight is enough to sway the balance. “The GSX-R1000 needs traction control, but is otherwise the second best all-around package on the track next to the ZX-10R,” Tom says.

2012 Suzuki GSX-R1000

Kawasaki ZX-10R

After basically confessing our love for the Suzuki, what could the ZX-10R possibly offer to rank it higher? Traction control. In a nutshell, that’s it. But let’s back up a little. A well-sorted TC system isn’t the only thing the Kawi has going for it.

Our dyno readings show the Kawasaki lacking in power compared to the GSX-R until both bikes are high in the revs. While this hurt the Kawasaki exiting slow speed turns on the street, it's not that big of an issue on the racetrack. “The Kawi lacks a little low-end and mid-range grunt compared to the Gixxer’s engine, but not enough to give the Suzuki any real advantage,” Tom says. Proper gear selection all but eliminates any apparent advantage the Suzuki may have.

2012 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Apart from the slight power deficit, the Zed matches or bests the Suzuki in every category. Its handling delighted us all, with Pete noting, “The chassis allowed the bike to track perfectly along my chosen path through a turn or corner with great communication from the front end.” Not surprisingly, the aggressive ergos we noted on the street proved to be comfortable and appropriate during track riding.

If you told us the brakes on the Kawi had “Brembo” stamped on them, we’d believe you. They are that good. “The Ninja’s Tokicos were fully up to the task, offering good feedback through short travel, all without applying too abruptly,” says Kevin.

2012 Kawasaki ZX-10R

We’re also fans of the Ninja’s gauge cluster. “The brightly colored LED bar-graph tach is awesome,” Pete says. “You only need to view it in your periphery to have an idea where the engine is spinning.” An added bonus is how easy it is to toggle for TC and power modes. Simply thumbing up or down adjusts each.

Saving the best for last, the K-TRC traction control system is what bumps the impressive ZX-10R ahead of the rest. Its seamless operation kicks in when you need it, sometimes before you realize you do. “I never felt like the TC was holding me back or slowing me down more than I wanted,” Pete says.

In the end, peace of mind TC provides does wonders for rider confidence. “After sessions on the CBR and GSX-R, I was glad to enjoy the safety net of TC again,” says Kevin in his fresh set of skivvies.

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